Even before its release, Basmati Blues attracted some negative press for its supposedly stereotypical portrayal of India and a patronising position of it being aided by white intervention. To address this first, is Basmati Blues a racist film in any way? Not really, at least it doesn’t tread on cultural sensitivity harder than most western movie portrayals of India. What it is, to both its benefit and its detriment is a very unusual film.
A musical romance (wait for it), set in India (no really, wait for it) themed around rice cultivation. History has occasionally thrown up musicals that really make you question whether you understood the premise correctly, after all we live in a world where there’s a movie themed around the back catalogue of the oh so Scottish duo of The Proclaimers (to be fair, Sunshine On Leith is pretty fun). However, a musical where rice plays a big theme along with another underlying theme about capitalist exploitation, is really quite a out there idea. Perhaps the fact that the film spends more time invested in its central romance is for the best but it is nonetheless a bewildering start.
Despite its rather low-key release, its status as the directorial debut of See Spot Run screenwriter Dan Baron, and the inconsistent but often low-end production values, Basmati Blues does boast quite the cast with the lead being Brie Larson and a supporting cast consisting of Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Tyne Daly and Donald Sutherland. All in all rather impressive even if you feel like more could’ve been done. There’s often a feeling that the cast are having a great time visiting India but not really working too hard, though Larson and Ambudkar have some real chemistry. Given as well that most of the main cast are actors first and singers second if at all (though Larson released an album back in 2005 and Daly’s a Broadway veteran) the musical performances aren’t really top-notch but the actual compositions are rather impressive and you could argue they could hold their own against much better known fare.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Basmati Blues does trade somewhat in exoticism. What you get is a very glamorous depiction of the country with all the bright colours, sitar music and friendly locals. I would go so far as to say that the portrait it paints of India is a respectful one but it definitely feels very much like its appealing to the inner-tourist. It is, despite its rather unorthodox premise, an undemanding affair but some genres are able to get away with just being fun and a bit silly; the musical happens to be one of them. By no means is it West Side Story but it’s nearing Mamma Mia territory and for all of its faults, which could still be enjoyed on an ironic level, it’s not a particularly bad experience just go in with your tongue a little in your cheek and your expectations of great cinema left behind.